Airports Are My Happy Place

As I write this, I am sitting at Gate 41 in Terminal 1 at Narita International Airport, and it is all I can do to keep from vibrating out of my skin in excitement. In a few hours, I’ll board a plane bound for Washington, DC via Chicago. It will be the first time I’ve been home in almost a year and a half, and though my emotions are bordering on ecstasy because of the reunions that are just over the horizon, a good portion of my happiness comes from the fact that I’m in an airport at all.

See, airports are my happy place. I’m in love with them. I’m the woman who shows up at least three hours before her flight – international or domestic, it doesn’t matter – just to spend a bit of extra time in the terminal. I could spend the entire day there and wouldn’t get bored once.

An early morning in the South Wing of Terminal 1 at Narita International.
An early morning in the South Wing of Terminal 1 at Narita International.

I love the anonymity I’m afforded in an airport. Aside from the security staff leafing through my passport and scanning my boarding pass, no one knows who I am. No one has any idea where I’m going and why. I could be anyone in an airport. I usually travel alone, so despite the fact that people surround me, I always feel a certain measure of privacy. I’m guilty of turning off my phone right after I’ve cleared security; I like being cut off and unreachable. An airport gives me freedom from dealing with everyday nuisances and annoyances that are otherwise always present.

For me, there’s hardly a better place to people watch. Peruse the crowds at an airport, especially if it’s international, and you’re guaranteed to see a huge range of races, nationalities, and social classes. I’d once spent an hour in Heathrow sitting between a Hasidic Jew and a sunny surfer who looked like he could have been Matthew McConaughey’s younger brother. Airports are melting pots.

And I think you can get a basic sense of a person’s character when they’re at an airport, too. Do they travel in comfort, wearing jeans and a t-shirt? Or are they all business, wearing heels or a suit? Are they quietly reading on a bank of chairs against the gate windows? Or are they typing away on a laptop, trying to get one last work email sent off before they board the plane? Sucking down a venti latte from Starbucks? Or snacking on a sandwich they made themselves and brought from home? (For the record, I’m the chick who alternately does yoga in quiet corners during layovers, guiltlessly chows down on an overpriced, huge burger, or catches up on reading comics on her iPad.)

I even have an airport ritual. My hair is always braided into a crown; its length makes leaving it down a huge hassle, and the crown means I can comfortably rest my head without the annoying bump of a ponytail or my usual chignon. I always grab a chai latte from Starbucks, especially when I’m in Narita since the closest ‘bucks to my house in Aomori is an hour away. I always shoot my dad a preemptive email saying, “Boarding in ten minutes. I’ll be fine, just keep breathing. Call you when I land.” I always watch an episode of Top Gear, my entertainment of choice when I travel, after I read a few issues of Buffy or X-Men. Even if my gate is the farthest in the terminal (And inevitably they are; I have the uncanny ability to only book flights that are 2485 miles from the main terminal.), I refuse to use the moving sidewalks to get one last chance to stretch out my legs. I love my airport routine; it keeps things constant, no matter when I’m flying off to.

And I love the sounds in an airport. I like the sounds of baggage wheels clacking on the moving sidewalk, a boarding pass being torn off, and my passport being stamped. All of those are comforting reminders that I am either almost home or soon to be somewhere new and exciting. (And there’s rarely a screaming baby in an airport. You usually have to get on a plane to enjoy that.)

But the best part about airports lies in what they symbolize. Airports are places of bookends: new beginnings and long-awaited endings, arrivals and departures, hellos and goodbyes. We start in one city to end in another hundreds or thousand miles away. You enter from a desert and exit into a blizzard. In from winter, out into summer. In from familiarity, out into something completely foreign. Or vice versa.

An airport is a place of transit, and not just geographically. I wish there was some sort of time-lapse to show how people change between departures and arrivals. When I arrive back home from being away, I’m never the same person as when I left.

And the emotions at an airport…you’ve got the whole range. You want to see human emotion at its most sentimental and raw? Watch families reunite at Arrivals. Watch them separate before security outside of Departures. Emotions converge on each other; the pain of goodbyes and last moments are mixed with anticipation and excitement. The heyday of an arrival is tempered by the comforting feeling that you are finally home again. I’ve gotten the stereotypical, romantic “I love you” when boarding a plane. The knowledge that soon there will be thousands of miles between you and your loved ones makes those moments all the more significant. Airports can cut you deep. But the fantastic thing about them is that as much as they are host to those moments, they’re also the places to flee from them. As soon as you step into an airport, a whole new chapter begins.

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